The Care of Sheep

Fourth Sunday of Easter  |  John 10:11-18

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, one who lays down his own life in the care of his sheep.

Why? Why does this shepherd care so much for these sheep? In answer, Jesus claims, “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

Knowing someone: it changes everything.

Think of a terrible news story, some natural disaster—a tornado or flood or earthquake. So long as we hear only the background, the big picture, we are safe from those people. Our hearts are free to leave them. It is terrible, we think. Perhaps we make a small donation, a few dollars in a jar.

Wolf Shadow by Lauren Bell
Wolf Shadow by Lauren Bell

Linger with the photographs, and we slip. See an image of a father trying to hold to his children, and we are lost. See tears in the wide eyes of an orphaned child, and we cannot turn away, not entirely, not without taking something of that pain with us, not without losing something of ourselves in the turning.

Likewise, imagine those people who appear to have brought their troubles on themselves. So long as they are at a distance, we blame them for their plight rather than see their needs.

No?

How about those North African migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, getting themselves into danger? So long as they are a concept, an idea, a problem, many of us can turn away from them. Perhaps we agree that rescue operations only encourage these people to persist. Stop to gaze at a photo of a woman nearly drowning in the surf, or listen to a man’s story of why his family would take such risks, and we cannot turn away without losing something of our own humanity.

Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell
Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell

I am the good shepherd, Jesus says, because I know them.

How about boy soldiers in Africa? Far away, and none of our concern, perhaps. Refugees in Syria? They destroyed their own country with civil war, didn’t they, and isn’t the UN doing something? More than that, they are far away. Even gazing into their eyes in the photos or reading their stories in interviews, we remain removed from them.

We cannot know them, not truly. Not knowing them, we can walk away. How are we to care when the wolves come?

If we haven’t already turned away from this bit of writing, let’s try something closer to where we live.

How about a homeless person? Not the persistent panhandler with a sign, the one we are fairly certain is less than honest about his goals. Try the one quietly asking for help, or people not asking us for anything, the family living in a car, the man waiting behind a bush for the shelter to reopen. We avoid knowing them so that we can walk away. If we know them, we no longer have that option.

So here is our Gospel question: do we get to know people because we are good shepherds, or do we become good shepherds because we get to know people?

That is applied spirituality, practical theology.

Backing away from the practical for a moment, there is also a theological bombshell buried in this passage: I lay down my life in order to take it up again.

What? In this season of resurrection, it is worth a second thought.

Why did Jesus die? Oh, come on, we know this one. If we’ve ever been near a Sunday school class, an evangelical sermon, or a hand painted roadside placard, we know why—to save us from our sins, right?

One problem—that is not what Jesus himself is recorded as saying, not here, perhaps not quite anywhere in the Gospels. I lay down my life in order to take it up again. I die for the purpose of living. And what do we make of that?

If nothing else, let’s agree that God may be up to something greater than our memorized explanations. We’ve built an entire system of thought to explain God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but our ideas about God are not God. Our explanations of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus are not Jesus.

Like the Christmas Grinch who thought of something he hadn’t before, what if the Gospel, perhaps, means a little bit more?

If we merely have ideas about God, we are still free. God remains a concept, dangerous enough but a step removed from us. We are protected from God by our own system of thought. Theology becomes a barrier, our seawall, an end in itself, our human-made substitute for a God we do not see and perhaps do not wish to see.

If we know God, if we open ourselves to the possibility of knowing something greater than ourselves, we walk dangerous ground, swim in deep waters. Knowing God, we can no longer turn away.

We may even find ourselves counting sheep.

Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell
Wolf Looking Back by Lauren Bell